I went down this morning to visit the bishop emeritus of Camiri, Bolivia, who is slowly dying. He is 75 and turned over his apostolic vicariate (like a diocese) to the new bishop about a month ago. It seems like only a short time ago that I’d see him wheeling around Camiri in his pickup truck, always wearing his Franciscan habit.
But, like the runner struggling to get to the finish line and then collapsing, he started to get serious ill as the October handover of the vicariate got closer. After becoming the retired bishop, he seems to be quickly fading away. He refuses to go up to Santa Cruz (four or five hours north of us) despite the fact that there are better medical facilities there. He seems determined to pass away in his old diocese among his people.
Growing up the States, I had little contact with death. Since time immortal, people have grown old and died at home among their own. For whatever reasons, this is not the reality in the United States today. We have little contact with the elderly, and death is a sanitized process. Funeral homes are tucked back from the street with heavily curtained windows. One doesn’t see people die or see corpses, except for carefully prepared bodies laid out for a few minutes at a viewing.
When I became a friar, this quickly changed. For one thing, friars are frequently called upon when death is near or has arrived. We tend to see people at this important time in their lives. Also, the elderly friars are more present within the friar community than are elderly in the society at large.
And, I came to work in Latin America. Here, seniors live and die at home with their families. People are used to death. It is still a sad thing, but it is not an unknown, terrifying thing. Funeral homes are on the street with other stores, with caskets sitting on display in the window. There are a selection of adult caskets, and a stack of smaller caskets for children and babies.
A Bolivian friend once asked me, “Do you what what the difference is between us and you?”“No,” I told him (assuming he was using the plural you). “Tell me.”“We’re not afraid to die,” he told me, “and you are.”
Death, in the U.S., is usually a mistake (the doctor did something wrong, the person didn’t take care of themselves, etc.) or else we’re still searching for a cure. It is part of the American psyche that we think that if we do enough, we can keep bad things from happening. With enough metal detectors and making everyone take off their shoes, we can prevent another terrorist attack. With enough medicine, we can delay death forever. That, and the remoteness of the elderly and the sanitized funerals, makes death something unreal. It becomes something frightening. It ceases to be something which will one day visit us and everyone we know.
In the words of the country song by Kenny Chesney:
Everybody wanna go to heaven
Hallelujah, let me hear you shout
Everybody wanna go to heaven
But nobody wanna go now
St. Francis of Assisi, in his well-known song, The Canticle of the Creatures, referred to the whole of creation as our brothers and sisters — referring, for example, to the sun and moon as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” Shortly before his own death, he added a new verse to the song:
Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape.
His Sister Death will soon visit Monseñor Leonardo Bernachi, OFM, and he seems to be peacefully awaiting her visit. Please remember him in your prayers.